Time to blow away the hot air
It was a normal night out for Michelle in a club in Sicily, until a man approached her on the dance floor, trying to chat her up. She turned down his advances. But something in her voice struck this man and so he struck Michelle.
Soon all his friends joined in, crowding around, punching and kicking her. She was left seriously injured. What was it about Michelle that made these men turn so aggressive? As she spoke to turn down the unwanted attention, the man realised that she was trans.
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As she puts it, “They wanted to butcher me just because of who I am, because I have a face that is a bit masculine and because they understood I was a trans person from my voice.”
Transphobic and homophobic violence can happen anywhere: on the street, in a bar or a club, in schools or even at home, yet no-one really knows the exact extent of this violence. This is partly because only a minority of EU countries collect data on homophobic hate crimes.
Even fewer, just five, collect data on transphobic hate crimes.
Secondly, and more importantly, it is estimated that 80 percent of these crimes go unreported. But an EU wide survey published earlier this year by the Fundamental Rights Agency gives some insight into the scale of the problem.
A whopping one in four LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex) respondents said they had been attacked or threatened in the last five years. Although a depressing figure, it is hardly surprising.
Institutionalised homophobia and transphobia remain pervasive in police forces, the judiciary and educational establishments throughout the EU.
In the same survey, seven out of 10 respondents said they had always or often hidden their sexual orientation or gender identity at school.
Michelle, however, did report her attack and did not hide the motive. She told the police about the derogatory language that was used by her assailants. Her trial is pending, but regrettably, the transphobic hate motive will not be explicitly taken into account. This is because currently Italy does not recognise sexual orientation or gender identity as grounds for hate crimes. Her attack will simply be treated as some drunken brawl.
Does it matter? Well, yes, it does.
This kind of hate motivated attack has a particularly detrimental and long-term impact on victims. And it creates a climate of fear for the LGBTI community. In effect, it means that people stop being who they are and go into hiding, so as not to expose themselves to this kind of violence.
Not investigating and acknowledging the hate motive in prosecution and sentencing allows the discrimination to continue - discrimination that is prohibited in international human rights standards and EU law. We recognise hate crimes based on ethnicity and race, so why not those based on sexual orientation or gender identity?
This is the question that must be put to governments.
Some EU countries have already made the change. But many others, such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and Latvia still need to urgently address this issue.
The EU should also set an example by including sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds for hate crimes when it reviews its Framework Decision on hate crimes later this year.
As the decision currently stands, xenophobic or racist motives associated with a crime must be taken into account either as aggravating circumstances during the trial or when determining penalties.
As sexual orientation and gender identity are discrimination grounds prohibited under EU law, the EU should extend the scope of this instrument to include hate crimes motivated by these grounds.
In June the Council of the European Union adopted conclusions on fundamental rights which talked of “the need to counter extreme forms of intolerance, such as... homophobia."
If we’re serious about tackling homophobia and transphobia, then the EU and its members must close these legislative gaps and start collecting data on these crimes.
Authorities must also put in place training to ensure that at all levels those in the police, judiciary and health service understand this discrimination and can spot these crimes.
If we cannot take these basic steps, then all talk of combating homophobia and transphobia will remain hot air.
The author is director of Amnesty International’s European institutions office in Brussels